Report on U.S. Attitudes Toward the Republic of Korea

Chicago Council on Global Affairs: Global Views 2010

In this report, we present and analyze public opinion data regarding U.S. attitudes toward the Republic of Korea (ROK). We include response data regarding the U.S.-Korea Alliance, U.S. military presence in South Korea, the North Korea nuclear issue, North-South Conflict, the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (KORUS-FTA), and general U.S. awareness of South Korea. The findings of this report are instructive for both scholars and policymakers, undercutting conventional wisdom regarding views of Korea, and offering important lessons for future policy formation.

Survey results regarding the U.S.-R.O.K. alliance suggest that the majority of Americans view the alliance with South Korea as having value and purpose beyond it original intent of deterrence of North Korea aggression. The vast majority (80%) of respondents believe, if unification was to occur, that the United States should maintain its alliance with Korea, and a majority (43%) cite counterbalancing China as their primary reasoning.

American support for a long-term U.S. military presence in South Korea is also relatively strong. More Americans (62%) think the U.S. should have long-term military bases in South Korea than any other country included in the survey. Half of respondents also thought that the current number of U.S. troops on the Peninsula seems “about right,” a marked increase from surveys of previous years.

Regarding the North Korea nuclear issue, Americans generally support the record and continuation of U.S. diplomacy with the North Koreans. The largest number (50%) of respondents supported working to “negotiate an end to North Korea’s nuclear capacity even if it means accepting the North Korean regime and continuing division of the Peninsula,” with minority groups supporting other options. A strong majority of Americans (62%) say that U.S. government leaders should be ready to meet and talk with leaders in North Korea.

In the event of North-South conflict, American support for U.S. military intervention in the aid of their southern ally is considerably stronger in the context of a multilateral effort. While a minority (40%) of respondents favor the use of U.S. troops if North Korea invaded the South, this number increases (61%) if U.S. forces are contributed with other countries in a U.N.-sponsored effort. This is likely the result of a general uneasiness with the idea of U.S. unilateralism.

Give the current economic climate, American public support for the KORUS-FTA is fairly lukewarm (44%), and these results are similar for Japan, India, and most other countries included in the survey. But the results show that this number increases (61%) among respondents who view South Korea as generally practicing fair and free trade. Despite the strong, six decade alliance the U.S. and the R.O.K. have shared, American awareness about South Korea is surprisingly low. Only about half (51%) of respondents think of South Korea as a democracy, few (19%) are aware that the country is predominantly Christian, and most are unaware that the R.O.K. is a top-ten U.S. trade partner. These findings undercut some of the more positive results of the survey as a whole, for a greater understanding of South Korea would likely skew many of the responses.

The results indicate that American public support for the U.S.-R.O.K. alliance and for engagement with the North to resolve the nuclear issue is and will presumably remain strong. In contrast, the tepid support for the KORUS-FTA is likely a result not only of the state of the global economy, but may also reside the basic motivations and threat perceptions of the American public. The results indicate that U.S. and Korean policymakers would do well to focus their audiences less on external threats and more on the opportunities that can be afforded by reduced trade barriers and closer alliance ties.

Victor Cha
Senior Vice President for Asia and Korea Chair

Katrin Katz